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Byron Shire
March 3, 2021

Hawksbill turtle release

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Before and after: Etna the Hawksbill turtle on arrival and ready for departure.

Australian Seabird Rescue will release three rare Hawksbill sea turtles at 10.30am at The Pass, Byron Bay, tomorrow to celebrate International Day for Biodiversity 2012.

In the wake of the recent listing of koalas, it is sad news that despite there being just 25,000 nesting Hawksbills still remaining in the wild worldwide, they are not listed at all in NSW.

‘It is a great concern to us that these turtles are not afforded sufficient protection in NSW, said Keith Williams, acting general manager at Australian Seabird Rescue.

These three turtles are the last to be released of a record 65 sea turtles that were stranded in November and December last year in the Northern Rivers.

Polly, the largest of the three, was rescued from the beach near Bicentennial Park at the mouth of the Richmond River in Ballina on 25 November last year.

Rusty came next, stranding less than a kilometre away at Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, early the following morning.

‘I don’t like to remember those days,’ said Keith.

‘Turtles were turning up at the rate of three or four a day and many were dead within hours. You really began to question what you were doing and whether this endless stream of sick and dying turtles was ever going to end. Thankfully the onslaught slowed and we began to see some turtles recover.’

Etna arrived on 15 December, stranding on South Ballina Beach.

Polly arrived covered from nose to tail in barnacles, she was blind, and had clearly been ill for many months. Once removed, the barnacles weighed in at 1.9kg, more than 10 per cent of her total body weight. It has taken months of painstaking work by ASR volunteers to help Polly regain her eyesight. Although around 25 years old Polly is still too young to breed and will need to survive for another five years at least.

Rusty, the smallest and youngest of the trio at around 12 years old, weighed just 4.6kg on arrival and will leave nearly 3kg heavier.

All three of these turtles were suffering from starvation, because of the smothering of marine habitat caused by floods.

The turtles will be released from the beach at The Pass. Here they will find rocky reef habitat nearby and they will make their way back to foraging range.

‘At this stage we don’t know where these turtles have come from,’ said Keith.

‘While we have previously assumed that ocean currents were sweeping sick turtles down from further north, it is possible that these turtles are part of a resident population that were affected by the flooding of the Clarence River, caused by the same weather system as the Queensland floods.’

The stranding incident and the local Hawksbill turtle population will be studied by a James Cook University postgraduate student over the coming months.

‘It’s important for us to know if the NSW north coast is providing critical habitat for this species at this particular sub-adult stage.

‘Many sea turtle species are known to migrate to different habitats during their lifecycle. As we gather more data, we will be making a submission to the NSW Scientific Committee, established under the Threatened Species Conservation Act, to have Hawksbill sea turtles listed as endangered and given the level of protection this rare creature deserves.’

Hawksbill turtles are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered with fewer than 25,000 nesting per year worldwide.

The beautiful shell of the Hawksbill turtle is the source of what is known ‘tortoiseshell’. As a consequence they have been hunted to near extinction. Hawksbills are known as the architects of coral reefs, eating sponges and algae that compete with the corals and shaping the whole ecosystem. ‘This is why biodiversity is so important. For many species we simply don’t know what impacts their removal will have on the food web and the wider ecosystem,’ said Keith.

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  1. There are so many creatures that we don’t know very much about, where they fit into the ecosystem, and what part they play in this chain. It is imperative that we gain a better knowledge of what part they play, no matter how small and act accordingly. It’s all about Giah and this wonderful organism called earth! FM


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